Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Karine Vanasse
In 1989 the massacre at École Polytechnique de Montreal was shocking because it was so unusual. In 2016, such events are shocking because they seem so common. There were school shootings before Polytechnique, of course, but aside from Charles Whitman’s rampage from the observation deck of the University of Texas in 1966, the number of fatalities as a result of any given attack were commonly 1 or 2, sometimes 0. In 1989, we were still 10 years away from Columbine, 18 years from Virginia Tech, 23 years from Sandy Hook. That any one person (or two, in the case of Columbine) could be responsible for taking the lives of so many at once still seemed extraordinary, unthinkable even. Excluding war-related incidents, Polytechnique remains one of the worst massacres in Canadian history and the anniversary of the event is now the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. To successfully make a film about Polytechnique, to capture its senselessness without rendering its victims meaningless, to address its political overtones without reducing its victims to symbols, requires a deft hand and a great deal of sensitivity. With Polytechnique, Denis Villeneuve demonstrates both.
For the most part, Polytechnique takes place on December 6, 1989, when a gunman (Maxim Gaudette), unnamed by the film so as not to glorify him, walked into the University with a rifle and the intention of killing as many women as possible. That women are his targets specifically is never in question, the suicide letter that he writes beforehand explicitly stating his objective: “I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their maker.” Through a voice-over the film sets out the full text of that letter and this is as close as we ever come to understanding the killer, as much as such a man can be understood. The film does not attempt to explain his actions. The focus is instead on how those actions impact the people who remain in the aftermath, both of whom are students in the classroom where he first opens fire. One is Valerie (Karine Vanasse), an engineering student who is shot but not killed in the attack. The other is Jean-Francois (Sebastien Huberdeau), a classmate who, along with the instructor and other men in the class, are forced to leave the room at gunpoint, and who is ever after wracked with guilt over what he sees as his failure to act.
Through both Valerie and Jean-Francois, Polytechnique explores the effects of trauma, both the physical and the psychological, but it also explores the damaging effects of misogyny and patriarchy. The killer is responsible for the lives he took, but he was only ever a symptom of a larger problem within society. He is actively and intensely misogynist, but before he even begins his attack, Valerie confronts a more insidious and casual form of sexism that leaves her shaken when she interviews for an engineering internship and the interviewer fails to take her seriously as a candidate because of his assumption that, because she’s a woman, her studies are just something to occupy her time until she gets a husband, and that she’ll just abandon any career she starts as soon as she has children. She tells him that she doesn’t want children and ends up getting the internship, which on a completely superficial level might look like a victory, but only if you ignore the fact that a male interviewee would never be asked to address that question, nor would he have to justify having pursued the job in the first place.
Valerie’s experience in the interview is painful to her, but she at least has a language in which to discuss it and unpack the experience. Jean-Francois, whose relationship with patriarchy and the societal expectations of masculinity is complex and fraught in its own way, is not so lucky. It’s never explicitly stated in the film that, in real life, the men who were in that classroom were criticized for having done more and for merely leaving instead of trying to overpower the gunman or something, but it doesn’t have to be stated outright because it’s written all over Jean-Francois’ face and in the way that he carries himself in the aftermath. The fact is, Jean-Francois does act bravely that day, trying to administer first aid to a woman shot in the common area while the killer is still roaming the halls, but his legacy as far as outsiders are concerned is that he left his friends. Never mind that as far as the men knew, the killer was herding them into the even more enclosed space of the hallway to slaughter them, never mind that for all they knew the killer was just planning to hold the women hostage, never mind that were the situation reversed and the killer ordered the women to leave and the men to stay, the women wouldn’t have been criticized for leaving that way. Just as society expects Valerie to see her potential roles as wife and mother as valuable above any other identity she might carve out for herself, it expects Jean-Francois to be capable of heroism above and beyond his experience and training, to live up to an idealized image of masculinity, and that expectation destroys him.
That Villeneuve is able to address all of this in the film’s brisk 77 minute running time is a testament to his skill as a storyteller and the balance that the narrative is able to find between the killings and the context in which the killings took place. He tells the story of Polytechnique in an artful but spare and minimalist fashion, photographing it in stark black and white in order to sidestep the possibility of glorifying the killing spree by emphasizing the blood, and opting to exclude certain facts such as the extra bit of savagery that the killer showed to the last victim he claimed before taking his own life. Villeneuve makes the right choices, including the choice to show the killer speaking his last words but muting the scene so that we don’t hear them, so that he is denied agency. He doesn’t get the last word; that belongs to Valerie. Nor does he get to lay claim to this as his story, or his legacy. It’s the 14 women he killed who have left the legacy, and Polytechnique’s sensitive and powerful exploration of that is what makes it such a moving, and enduring, film.